Thursday, November 10, 2005

A Really Long Introduction...

I have a fantastic book (a gift from my Sweet-Pea after I had checked it out of the library a hundred times) of photographs documenting the construction of the Chrysler Building in 1928-1930. It's an interesting story about the history of the building, of course, but also about how the photos were discovered a decade ago in the dank basement studio of an elderly photographer who was closing up shop; the plates were about to be recycled and their silver reclaimed. They are large format, high resolution photos of a routine building project, but which capture unwittingly in stunning, frozen detail the world of Manhattan in 1929.

This combination of time and place has an hypnotic effect on me (as I know I've said before), an effect that is almost pain, a yearning like being in love. I have stared at these images for hours and hours.

There are thousands of people in these pictures. Except for maybe a small child here and there, they're all gone now. Who are those people on the trolley reading the paper? Craning their necks at the construction site? Or in the window of that office building that is itself now long gone? Or coming out of that movie theater? Or crossing the street, enroute from where to where? A 10th floor window of a nondescript brick building overlooking the construction site is open in the sunlight and the curtains billow out slightly. A man's arm can be seen in the window. Whose apartment is it? How is it furnished? Was it as expensive then as they are now? I think of the fights and meals and poker games and homework and lovemaking and illnesses that apartment had seen. Now all gone. It's as though we're kept just shy of enough information to glean something of each of these people's stories, and so one is left to guess and to fill in with your own imagination.

So many things in the photographs mark the age: above-ground trolley cars; horse carts; dump trucks with solid rubber tires and spoke wheels; laundry hanging on a line high up between buildings; steam shovels actually powered by steam; cars with hood ornaments; flower pots out on iron fire escapes; everybody wears a hat, in every picture. Sunny days where people are dressed in long coats--it's fall and you feel the cool of the City. Or the damp in pictures where everybody has an umbrella or a newspaper held over their heads as they scurry along the street. How pungent and different must the smells have been in New York at that time! Horse dung and burning coal and polluting vehicles. And the noise: a cacophony of sounds from machines and conveyances now decades gone. It was a place so different, yet still the same New York we know and love.

And then there is the the fabulous era of Art Deco, the style which infuses everything from (naturally) the design of the Chrysler Building itself to the modes of dress and styling of the cars on the street to the theatre marquees and the style of placard and billboard advertising. (This leads me to a digression-within-this-digression, since this post was not supposed to be about this book or the Chrysler Building: the photos begin with the demolition and excavation of the site prior to the new construction. The old building on the site is torn down, revealing a brick wall to an adjacent building, a wall which had been covered by the now-demolished building since soon after the Civil War. And there covering that whole wall is a faded-just-out-of-reach advertisement--a palimpsest, he calls it in the preface--in the mode of that day. What a fantastic bit of archeology. Sure enough, like some kind of virus, within a few days (the photos are taken every couple of days) someone has painted a new, and very Art Deco, ad in that same place, even knowing that within a few months it will again be covered over, this time by the Chrysler building's bricks. And this time that wall will never see the light of day again. That building is now long gone.)

All this was intended to introduce a body on another, tangentially-related subject, a body which is now half this size. I guess that will be another post!

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